New Jersey runner battles leukemia one run at a time

If Tom Metz knows you, he greets you with a hug or warm handshake. If he doesn't, the West Morris Area YMCA physical education director is pleased to make your acquaintance.

Metz's positive attitude and smile are contagious. You'd never know that beneath his effervescence, Metz is fighting a battle of unimaginable proportions. Tom Metz has leukemia.

In the spring of 1999, Metz, who lives in Rockaway, N.J., was diagnosed with Lyme disease. His Lyme test was "borderline," but he'd had the symptoms and telltale "bull's eye" tick bite. He took antibiotics from May until November. In November, he noticed strange aching in his fingers, a sign of one of two things: either the Lyme was leaving his system, or it was coming back.

At the same time, he discovered blood in his stool. He went to the doctor immediately to get tested. The bleeding was due to an ulcerated hemorrhoid, very treatable. But something else was going on. His blood tests came back with what his doctor was sure had to be a glaring error. Metz's white count was sky-high.

"If you were 70," the doctor told him, "I'd know what it was: leukemia."

But Metz was only 33.

Metz had 25,000 white blood cells. A normal person has 3,000 to 10,000. During the diagnosis period, Metz had to take five weeks off from running and went through an agonizing Thanksgiving weekend. He drove miles back and forth to be with family and go through a painful under-skin test only to find the results weren't received in time and the test had to be repeated.

Finally, the following week, the call came into the YMCA. Metz's hematologist had a diagnosis. Metz prepared himself for a fight.

"I'm an athlete," Metz said. "I figured I'd go in, get the news as to what I had and what I'd have to go through to fight it and get through it."

Unfortunately, he can't do that. There is no cure for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Yes, he could go through chemotherapy, but its affects would only be temporary and for now, the negatives of the chemo itself outweigh any positive ramifications. Should his stage advance, this may change.

"I can't go into battle and beat this thing," he says. "Basically all I can do is make sure I stay healthy."

The leukemia makes Metz very susceptible to colds and illnesses that could advance to meningitis, flu or pneumonia.

"Especially where I work, I'm exposed to a lot of germs," he says. "If I feel weak, I have to back off and rest."

Fortunately, Metz is in Stage 0, and he has had a ton of support. And he runs.

"When I was diagnosed," he said, "I talked to my hematologist, Dr. Ellen Early, at the Carol G. Simon Center in Morristown, about running. I told her that I thought continuing to run, as long as I didn't overdo it, would keep my body stronger, making me better able to fight illness."

Metz then discussed this with specialists at Sloan Kettering in New York. It made sense.

"I can't push workouts like I used to, or run as many miles, but I can run."

It was a fall-off in his running times that first made Metz think something may be wrong. He was on fire in 1993, running incredible times to the tune of a 30:45 10K and 47:50 15K.

"It was a phenomenal year," he says. The next year was OK, but then in 1995, "my times slowed drastically."

Additionally, he noticed that his urine smelled like bacon and that if he tried to both run and lift weights, he was very susceptible to colds.

"I think I've had the leukemia since 1995," he says.

How has Metz's life changed? He gets tired a lot.

"If it weren't for work, I could easily stay in bed all day sometimes," he says.

There are three-day weekends when he sleeps for 30 hours. And then there are the bouts of insomnia. These usually coincide with an upcoming blood test. This past June, Metz's white count hit 38,000.

"It was scary," he said, "but fortunately it went back down."

This past summer, Metz went to the Track Nationals in Eugene, Ore. "It's something I wouldn't have done if I didn't have leukemia."

Not only did he go, he won the 30 - 34 1,500-meter. Metz's goal now is to be part of his Running Company team's indoor 4 x 800 meter team at the Nationals in Boston this spring.

"I hope I'll be fast enough to make the team," he says.

Metz's wife Kathy, along with friends from all over, especially high-school classmate Mike Pignatello, who is in remission from an acute form of leukemia; Metz's boss, Bill Lamia; and co-worker Bobby Beldon, have been a huge support system.

"I know how frustrating this is for me, I can't imagine how hard this must be for Kathy," he says.

Thanks to e-mail, Metz can write to his teammates, family and friends when he's wide awake in the wee hours.

"I always e-mail people before my tests and usually immediately get five to 10 responses. Then I e-mail the team with the results. I'm not alone; they're all my teammates and this is the most important team event of my life."

Metz is in Stage 0, of five stages. Statistics give those in their 70s ? the usual age to contract CLL ? 10 to 15 years to live, but, says Metz: "That's people in their 70s. They don't have too many stats on people my age. I plan to be around for a long time."

Running is a lot like life. Sometimes you are not exactly sure where it's going to take you. Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it feels great. Reasons for running vary with each person. For Metz, he knows he won't be at the level he once was. Now, he runs to keep strong, and to help him, mentally and physically, in his battle against leukemia.

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